Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Edgar Allan Poe (18091849)
[From Works. 1850.]
UPON her was lavished the enthusiastic applause of the most correct taste, and of the deepest sensibility. Human triumph, in all that is most exciting and delicious, never went beyond that which she experiencedor never but in the case of Taglioni. For what are the extorted adulations that fall to the lot of the conqueror?what even are the extensive honors of the popular authorhis far-reaching famehis high influenceor the most devout public appreciation of his worksto that rapturous approbation of the personal womanthat spontaneous, instant, present, and palpable applausethose irrepressible acclamationsthose eloquent sighs and tears which the idolized Malibran at once heard, and saw, and deeply felt that she deserved? Her brief career was one gorgeous dreamfor even the many sad intervals of her grief were but dust in the balance of her glory. In this book I read much about the causes which curtailed her existence; and there seems to hang around them, as here given, an indistinctness which the fair memorialist tries in vain to illumine. She seems never to approach the full truth. She seems never to reflect that the speedy decease was but a condition of the rapturous life. No thinking person, hearing Malibran sing, could have doubted that she would die in the spring of her days. She crowded ages into hours. She left the world at twenty-five, having existed her thousands of years.
If ever mortal wreaked his thoughts upon expression, it was Shelley. If ever poet sangas a bird singsearnestlyimpulsivelywith utter abandonmentto himself solelyand for the mere joy of his own songthat poet was the author of The Sensitive Plant. Of artbeyond that which is instinctive with geniushe either had little or disdained all. He really disdained that Rule which is an emanation from Law, because his own soul was Law in itself. His rhapsodies are but the rough notesthe stenographic memoranda of poemsmemoranda which, because they were all-sufficient for his own intelligence, he cared not to be at the trouble of writing out in full for mankind. In all his works we find no conception thoroughly wrought. For this reason he is the most fatiguing of poets. Yet he wearies in saying too little rather than too much. What in him seems the diffuseness of one idea, is the conglomerate concision of many: and this species of concision it is, which renders him obscure. With such a man, to imitate was out of the question. It would have served no purpose; for he spoke to his own spirit alone, which would have comprehended no alien tongue. Thus he was profoundly original. His quaintness arose from intuitive perception of that truth to which Bacon alone has given distinct utterance:There is no exquisite Beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportions. But whether obscure, original, or quaint, Shelley had no affectations. He was at all times sincere.
From his ruins, there sprang into existence, affronting the heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the originalfaults which cannot be considered such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A school aroseif that absurd term must still be employeda schoola system of rules upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the bizarrerie of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of Alastor had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were forced to be content with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire. Nor were mature minds unimpressed by the contemplation of a greater and more mature; and thus, gradually, into this school of all Lawlessnessof obscurity, quaintness and exaggerationwere interwoven the out-of-place didacticism of Wordsworth, and the more anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge. Matters were now fast, verging to their worst; and at length, in Tennyson poetic inconsistency attained its extreme. But it was precisely this extreme (for the greatest truth and the greatest error are scarcely two points in a circle) which, following the law of all extremes, wrought in him (Tennyson) a natural and inevitable revulsion; leading him first to contemn, and secondly to investigate, his early manner, and finally to winnow, from its magnificent elements, the truest and purest of all poetical styles. But not even yet is the process complete; and for this reason in part, but chiefly on account of the mere fortuitousness of that mental and moral combination which shall unite in one person (if ever it shall) the Shelleyan abandon and the Tennysonian poetic sense, with the most profound Art (based both in Instinct and Analysis) and the sternest Will properly to blend and rigorously to control allchiefly, I say, because such combination of seeming antagonisms will be only a happy chancethe world has never yet seen the noblest poem which, possibly, can be composed.
Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius, is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work, or anything similar, and this solely through lack of what may be termed the constructive abilitya matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term genius itself. This ability is based, to be sure, in great part, upon the faculty of analysis, enabling the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and regulate it at will; but a great deal depends also upon properties strictly moralfor example, upon patience, upon concentrativeness, or the power of holding the attention steadily to the one purpose, upon self-dependence and contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no morein especial, upon energy or industry. So vitally important is this last, that it may well be doubted if anything to which we have been accustomed to give the title of a work of genius was ever accomplished without it; and it is chiefly because this quality and genius are nearly incompatible, that works of genius are few, while mere men of genius are, as I say, abundant. The Romans, who excelled us in acuteness of observation, while falling below us in induction from facts observed, seem to have been so fully aware of the inseparable connection between industry and a work of genius, as to have adopted the error that industry, in great measure, was genius itself. The highest compliment is intended by a Roman, when, of an epic, or anything similar, he says that it is written industriâ mirabili or incredibili industriâ.
That poets (using the word comprehensively, as including artists in general) are a genus irritabile, is well understood; but the why seems not to be commonly seen. An artist is an artist only by dint of his exquisite sense of Beautya sense affording him rapturous enjoyment, but at the same time implying, or involving, an equally exquisite sense of Deformity, of disproportion. Thus a wrongan injusticedone a poet who is really a poet, excites him to a degree which, to ordinary apprehension, appears disproportionate with the wrong. Poets see injusticenever where it does not existbut very often where the unpoetical see no injustice whatever. Thus the poetical irritability has no reference to temper in the vulgar sense, but merely to a more than usual clear-sightedness in respect to wrong:this clear-sightedness being nothing more than a corollary from the vivid perception of rightof justice;of proportionin a word, of [Greek]. But one thing is clearthat the man who is not irritable (to the ordinary apprehension) is no poet.